I mean what can you expect from a film called American Yakuza? There’s no lofty cultural metaphors at play here, it’s quite literally about infiltration of the infamous Japanese crime syndicate by a lone wolf FBI deep cover agent played by Viggo Mortensen, who had quite the fascinating career before Lord Of The Rings shunted him into the international spotlight. He’s an interesting guy who really broke the mold with Aragorn but before that Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do with him, casting him in a goody bag of incredibly eclectic roles that saw him serve as action hero, sage mentor, maniacal villain and even The Devil himself. Here he’s restrained, sardonic and carries the role of this somewhat renegade Fed well, underscored by solid action scenes and obligatory early 90’s melodrama. He’s caught between a ruthless yet honourable Yakuza boss (Ryo Ishibashi) who believes him to be one of the ranks, an equally ruthless mafia Don (scene stealing Michael Nouri) with no honour whatsoever who wants to wipe the Japanese out and a corrupt, unorthodox FBI section chief (Robert Forster) who is trying to pit both forces against each other and let the animals wipe each other out in a collective bloodbath. Viggo is stuck in the middle and I found his character fascinating because he’s alone in the world, the reason he joined the bureau is he had no family, nothing to lose and he sort of finds one in the Yakuza, before loyalties are tested and all hell breaks loose. This is a pretty substandard 90’s action flick that benefits a great deal from Mortensen, who could literally make interesting acting work out of portraying a soup cracker. Nouri is also a vicious treat as the Italian mob boss, an evil xenophobic asshole who loves to provoke others, intimidate his own men and is just an all round rotten bastard. Fun stuff, streaming on Amazon Prime these days.
I mean who doesn’t wanna see Karl Urban and Dwayne Johnson blowing up demonic aliens with excessively heavy artillery on Mars? Well plenty of people didn’t if you look at the overall critic and audience reception to Doom, but I kinda enjoyed this cheesy, bloody, dimly lit and shamelessly lowbrow yet raucously entertaining bit of space action horror. Having not played this game series beyond a few vague rounds of Doom3 back when I was a stoned teenager, I can’t comment on the congruency in style, tone or narrative of the film versus the games but if that’s a dealbreaker and you hate the film because for you it betrayed the soul of the source material, more than fair enough. All I know is I put this thing on as background noise and it served as engaging, very silly intergalactic schlock with big monsters, bigger attitudes and *incredibly* big guns to shoot them with, one plasma cannon wielded by The Rock that’s so large it almost veers into parody. Dwayne is effectively tough as Sarge, leader of a ragtag bunch of mercenaries, among whose ranks we see various archetypes like the religious zealot (Ben Daniels), the rookie kid (Al Weaver), the loudmouth clown (a scene stealing Richard Brake) and of course the strong silent hero type Reaper, played solidly by Karl Urban. The pack of them are off to Mars using a weird teleportation device made of soap bubbles (not sure if that was a staple in the games) to engage murky zombie demon mutant things in vicious firefights down dimly lit space station corridors as a perky scientist (the lovely Rosamund Pike) does her best with unnecessary exposition that had me chuckling.. like it’s a film about space marines blowing up nondescript, raving mutant monsters, do we really need a few pages of explanatory pseudo genetic-science based verbal diarrhoea to try and make sense of it? I think not. Anyways, all the shooting, fighting, bleeding, limbs flying and fast-food action horror are kinda fun, especially seeing Dwayne and Karl in shameless early career genre mode set to a bangin’ metal soundtrack.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is a masterpiece of artistic creation and a wonderful piece of filmmaking in every arena of the medium. It’s also one of the best examples of dream logic I’ve ever seen in cinema, and ‘logic’ is really the key word here. Let me explain: many, many films strive to replicate the feeling of a dream, the maniacally detailed disarray of the subconscious mind and where many end up faltering is just by making their dream logic a series of random abstractions without an undercurrent of logic and sense, however far removed from that which we are familiar with. Apparently Miyazaki more or less made this story up as he went along, using little in the way of script and allowing naturally formed ideas to spontaneously jump from the creative process of that and his team directly into storyboard form. This shows, and helps the film achieve effect wonderfully because you get this stream of consciousness series of dream world vignettes that although are sublimely weird and abstract, have their own set of coherent rules and surreal ‘logic’ that makes sense even if one can’t quite articulate it as we see young girl Chihiro swept up in a magical, otherworldly journey bookended by two scenes that are just down to earth enough to take place in our world. When her and her parents meander through a mysterious tunnel in a lush, overgrown area of rural Japan, she loses sight of them and ends up in a bizarre, metaphysical bathhouse that serves the needs of a nearby town of celestial spirits, beings and life forces from the astral realms beyond our own. This operation is run by a nasty old witch spirit named Yubaba, who makes enterprise out of stealing people’s names and imprisoning them as her own free labour force, which Chihiro soon finds herself right in the middle of. The narrative skips along and is very light on its feet but hugely dense and filled with so much incident, spectacle and visual bedazzlement that explaining it here would sound like I’m making it up, but in the film itself it feels assured, confident in itself as a story and grounded in its own logic, full of virtually boundless imagination and not to mention gorgeously animated and symphonically scored by Joe Hisaishi. Brilliant film.
I missed out on Richard Stanley’s Colour Out Of Space last year but I’m glad I caught up because wow what a trip into earthbound cosmic madness as only the mind of H.P. Lovecraft could dream up. When a weird meteor thing plummets into the backyard of Nic Cage and his average, slightly hippie family, things start to get strange in the surrounding area as a mysterious ‘colour’ from another part of the universe begins to transform everything around it into something else, sometimes just odd, sometimes beautiful and eventually downright terrifying. I love the idea of a meteor falling and being the setup for a horror film because there’s so much you can do with that concept in the realms of imagination. This film reminded me of Alex Garland’s Annihilation in a sense, but whereas the entity that came from a meteor in that used the genetic codes and biological structures of our planet to create something new, this Colour thing just shows up and begins fucking around with things on its own shocking, illogical terms, like any self respecting Lovecraft monster should. It’s a hoot watching this family slowly start to lose it, starting with Cage in one of his patented full on neurotic meltdowns filled to the brim with maniacal rants, grotesque physicality and pitch black humour. His wife is played by Joely Richardson who I haven’t seen in a while, since Girl With The Dragon Tattoo at least but I always love seeing her turn up. The cast is pretty darn eclectic too and includes the lovely Q’orianka Kilcher as the world’s bitchiest small town mayor and beloved Tommy Chong as a forest dwelling oddball with a cat he calls ‘G-Spot’ (*snicker*). The main draw for me here is the otherworldly, mystical horror elements and director Stanley pulls out all the stops in terms of atmosphere, visuals and things just going berserk. Everything turns pinky purple, the family loses their sense of coherence and time and eventually they begin to transform, and there’s one sequence in particular that is fucking miles beyond how horrific I thought they were gonna go with this film and is disturbing to the core. Great film.
What if you returned to your hometown after decades away with plans on killing an abusive parent, only to find out that someone had already beaten you to the punch? Problem solved, right? Not quite, at least for troubled, angry teen Bella Thorne in Chad Faust’s Girl, a bleak modern western about a no-horse town and the Girl who blusters into it looking for answers and revenge. She’s come for her estranged daddy, who was volcanically abusive to her and her mother years before, and she intends to settle the score with him, for good. When she finds that someone has already killed him, instead of calling it a day and packing off home, she noses around the derelict backwater enclaves that were no doubt once a half prosperous township, and finds more trouble than she bargained for. Mickey Rourke has a good sized, scenery chewing role here as the dodgy county sheriff who, you guessed it, also moonlights as the local crime lord. I think in these deeply corrupt little slices of rural hell its just a job prerequisite for any sheriff to also be a vice kingpin, I mean taking on the two most powerful jobs on the roster is just killing two birds with one stone, no? Rourke is a leathery, hulking presence these days and makes this guy every inch the evil, murderous son of a bitch you’d hope from the role. Faust is a first time director and does a pretty damn good job considering, despite a few bloated passages of dialogue and choppy editing that could have used a bit of tough love. He also takes on one of the acting roles which he does with eccentricity and freakish exuberance. This is the first time I’ve seen Bella Thorne in anything and hadn’t even heard of her before this film, she’s pretty limited in terms of emotional range and line delivery and could use some work on her acting, but she’s got good presence, brooding in a faded hoodie and glaring out from behind a windswept mane of hair. Plus her weapon of choice is a hatchet, which she wields with startling lethality. The film’s strongest quality is atmosphere, and tons of it. IMDb doesn’t list any filming locations yet but wherever it is, it’s a place the rest of the world forgot. Boarded up buildings along the main drag, muttering drunks lining the lonely streets and pickling in a shabby dive run by an eternally pessimistic barkeep (Glenn Gould) and grey, washed out inland wilderness. It might be the most depressing place on the continent, but serves as quite the backdrop for this gnarly little tale to run its course. There’s also a wonderful, haunting original score by Dylan Baldassero that combines eerie lyrics and strange, unconventional instrumentals to great effect, as well as some very well orchestrated plot twists that spice up the narrative. Solid film.
It’s fitting when a film like this lives up to its title, and you really Better Watch Out for this ugly, pointless, infuriating, uncomfortable, sexist piece of wanton trash disguised as a Yuletide black comedy. It’s basically a home invasion fake-out where two sociopathic little brats, one a drooling simpleton (Ed Oxenbould) and the other a cold hearted monster (Levi Miller), kidnap their own babysitter (Olivia DeJonge) and subject her to humiliation, torture and intimidation for no other reason than they’re fucked in their little pea brained adolescent heads. There is no point to setting this film at Christmas time, the delicious irony found in other contradictory Christmas films about violence and misanthropy in a festive context (see The Ice Harvest, Black Christmas and The Ref for successful examples) lands with an ill favoured thud here and we’re left with an agonizing ninety minutes of pointless, anxiety inducing exploitative scumbaggery passing itself off as a movie. The one saving grace is Billy Hargrove from Stranger Things in an inspired cameo of comedic improv to himself in a rear-view mirror that is absolutely hilarious. Other than that, this is a bottom feeding piece of work. Even Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen look like they want to run for the hills and spend most of the film away from the action. There’s a scene that takes the paint can sequence from Home Alone to brutally realistic new heights and thinks it’s oh so clever and playful when really it’s unnecessary and sadistic. Miller does his best but the character is just such a horrific little snot-fuck I wanted to jump through the tv and cave his head in on the marble countertop, such is the level of mental distress, terrorization and abuse he inflicts on the babysitter it goes beyond gratuitous. Then there’s the ending. Don’t even get me started on how badly this movie cheats the viewer of an absolutely cathartic final resolution by being a cheeky shit and holding out on a finale it desperately needed to follow through on if it hoped to earn anything resembling redemption. It doesn’t seem to care about its characters, audience, story or the universe in general. Perhaps I’m being far too harsh and it just hit me the wrong way but whatever, every now and then I gotta have a ‘Roger Ebert emphatic intense rant review’ if something irks me and this one made me feel like shit all night after. Bah. Fucking. Humbug.
Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu has always had an affinity for telling dark, difficult, unconventional stories in his work and while there are certain more prolific films he’s made I think that 21 Grams might be his most challenging, emotionally galvanizing and unconventionally rewarding piece to date. Using his patented ‘mosaic’ storytelling motif, we see a series of increasingly distressing and unrelentingly bleak events unfold involving a woman (Naomi Watts) whose family was killed in a hit and run, the troubled ex con (Benicio Del Toro) who ran them over and the terminally ill man (Sean Penn) who is intrinsically tied to both their lives. The film asks us to cast an unblinking eye on grief, tragedy and ponderous moral morass as these three souls collide in heated encounters, violent confrontations and darkly cathartic resolution. Penn is as implosive as ever and his was the one performance of the three I didn’t fully connect with but to be fair character’s situation is nearly impossible for the viewer to put themselves in, and in any case he is terrific. Watts is a sorrowful quarry of devastation, turning to substances and nearly succumbing to despair in her grieving process while seeking retribution for her family. Del Toro gives the best performance of the film as a self loathing, hard-luck, emotionally stunted fellow who uses starch evangelism as both a weapon against his own family and a tool to convince himself of something perhaps only he sees, or hopes for in his own nature. The supporting cast are all excellent and given their own individual moments to shine including the criminally underrated Melissa Leo as Benicio’s destructively pragmatic wife, Eddie Marsan, Danny Huston, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dennis O’Hare, Stephen Bridgewater, Paul Calderon, Kevin Chapman, Lew Temple and more. The great Clea Duvall also shows up in a heartbreaking key supporting part and trust an intuitive guy like Inarritu to direct cameras slowly away from Watts as a core scene plays out and gradually move in on Clea for a distilled, gut wrenching closeup, I appreciated the focus and attention momentarily being given to a fantastic actress who has spent most of her career in Hollywood on the supporting sidelines but gets to powerfully emote big time here, if only for a few blessed frames. This is an emotionally devastating experience on all fronts and although it may not flow quite as organically as Alejandro’s debut stunner Amores Perros, there is no denying the raw, elemental potency of the drama, the stark vulnerability of the performances or the beauty of a fragmented, jigsaw puzzle narrative which serves to remind us how memory and time can shape the way we act, perceive and relate to one another in life. Masterful film.
The rise of Satanic Panic in the 1990’s always seemed to permeate into Hollywood, as the collective fears of a decade often do. Devilish cinematic efforts ranged from excellent (End Of Days, Fallen, The Devil’s Advocate) to lukewarm (Stigmata, The Order) to mediocre (The Ninth Gate) but I can now say that the only one I would consider an absolutely terrible film is Janusz Kaminski’s Lost Souls. This thing is one of the murkiest, muddiest, laziest, most bizarre pieces of celluloid I’ve ever sat through shaking my head at and I found myself wondering how it got past the pitch phase with such a paper thin script like that. Here’s the ‘plot’ and the only reason I know is because I IMDb’d a synopsis, there’s no telling what’s going on by watching the actual film itself: a catholic school teacher (Winona Ryder) with an apparent personal history of demon possession is recruited by her former priest (John Hurt) and his associates to find the human avatar for the Antichrist, who will soon take earthly form. This particular human is a bumbling atheist true crime author (Ben Chaplin) who is more than a little confused at these implications. There’s also an inexplicable subplot involving a serial killer making media headlines, another rogue preacher (Phillip Baker Hall) and other dimly lit gobbledygook that makes little to no sense. Ryder is listless and meandering, Chaplin never makes a huge impression anyways. Hurt barely registers beyond looking vaguely worried and you know your film is in serious trouble when even usual scene stealer Elias Koteas is cast in an inconsequential bit part with no lasting impression. Director Kaminski is a well renowned cinematographer who has shot all kinds of prolific stuff but he probably should have stepped out of the director’s chair back into a DoP position because this looks like it was shot through a burlap sack filter. Mucky browns, grainy greys and tinny blues abound and not in a good way. The score sounds like an amplifier being dropped onto a marble floor (not in a good way either I might add) and every actor in this thing either looks like they have no grasp on the flow of the story (which is almost nonexistent) or would simply rather be somewhere else. How this thing ever got released is beyond me.
Remember that poem ‘Tiger Tiger’ by William Blake? I always loved that one in school and Burning Bright, horror film that combines several high concepts for an odd but entertaining mix, isn’t quite as poetic enough to live up to the Blake piece but works well as a kind of low grade Grindhouse SyFy deal. How do you make your chamber piece/creature feature more scary these days, or any thriller at all for that matter? Set it during a hurricane, of course. I think I saw like three movies this year alone set during a typhoon and revolving around every other central threat you can think of from bank robberies to alligators to street gangs. Here it’s obviously a tiger and the hurricane only serves to delineate that the lead characters can’t simply leave the house to escape it. This is an especially vicious and ‘evil’ tiger, or so we’re informed early on by hammy circus boss Meat Loaf as he pawns it off to no-good stepfather and ‘safari ranch’ entrepreneur Garrett Dillahunt, a perennially sinister fellow who looks like he could be Will Forte’s evil twin. His stepdaughter (Briana Evigan) and autistic stepson (Charlie Tahan, so young here!) find themselves boarded up in the family home alone with this tiger while the hurricane rages on outside. How did this happen? I won’t spoil it but you can sorta kinda sus it out from what I’ve said already. This allows for a sweaty, impressively suspenseful battle of wills against the animal, as the daughter tries to protect both of them and shelter the boy because he doesn’t quite… grasp what’s going on. This is a fun, solid film that doesn’t take its premise too far into WTF-ville or overstay it’s welcome, and although a tad aloof and awkward in spots, the scenes in the house where they face off agains the tiger are very well done, thanks to use of actual tigers over CGI. The film almost doesn’t deserve a title based on property like Blake when the story overall is so… just regular. I’d have almost preferred a surreal, dark film that just started with the kids already stuck in the house with the tiger and no setup, hurricane or sidebars, a simplistic, dreamy art piece based on the single concept. What we got is decent enough, but man the title is so much more evocative.
Emma Tammi’s The Wind, which could also be called Little House Of Horrors On The Prairie, is a nicely atmospheric, sometimes effective but ultimately muddled and frustrating horror western (my fave sub genre!) that I really wanted to be a winner. Somewhere out there in all that desolation a homesteader couple (Caitlin Gerard & Ashley Zuckerman) are doing the best they can to survive off the land, when another couple (Julia Goldani Telles & Julian McTee) take up their own property an acre or two away, making them default neighbours, and this is where the trouble begins, or maybe it does, it’s hard to tell what’s happening when because the film jump as around in time a *lot* to the point where it feels needlessly discombobulating. Both girls seemingly have miscarriages and are traumatized by it, and in one timeline Gerard’s character is stuck alone in her cabin as a sinister supernatural presence menaces her. Or does it? Attempts at subtlety and misdirection unfortunately only added to the confusion, for my part. See the thing is, life out there on the plains is so distilled into simple form that the elaborate structure of flashback/flash-forward feels unwieldy and too tangled when it could have been a linear, crystalline tale. There are some genuinely spooky moments that are very well directed, acted and shot involving Gerard dealing with the malevolent forces surrounding her, garnished with a deliciously shrill violin score by Ben Lovett, a composition that frequently feels like it’s stabbing you in the ribs with quick, jarring strings cues. Credit where credit is due and all that but this choice to tell the story in fragmented, back and forth form cripples the ambience and isn’t done confidently or fluidly, as is the twist ending that when looked back upon, definitely raises some sagebrush eyebrows. An almost.